Sunday, May 4, 2008

Laughter Reviews #17 - KEEPER

Time for another review with the focus: funny or not?

by Lindsey Davis

Sleuth in ancient Rome is commissioned by the newest Caesar to investigate fraud and murder.

What Works
What a delight, stepping into the pages of this superbly entertaining novel. The story is meticulously researched and replete with descriptive (but never overdone) historical detail that makes the challenge of everyday survival in A.D. 70 seem to spring to three-dimensional life. The effect is only enhanced by having the highly irreverent hero tell the story in first person.

Marcus Didius Falco is a young man living in a seedy part of Rome during the rise of Emperor Vespasian. He completed his military service, but had the bad luck of being posted to Britain which was not only horribly cold and far away but underwent a native revolt, put down not by his legion but its successor. Consequently he must endure derision rather than basking in military glory as he tries to eke a living as a private eye. His art-dealer father abandoned the family years ago to live with a younger woman and his brother died a reckless hero's death in Palestine, making Falco the nominal head of the family. Falco grapples with resentment of these two male figures, while attempting to deal with the daily demands of his mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, landlady, pickpockets, gladiators, bureaucrats, clients, senators, slaves.....

Falco is a mass of contradictions. He gripes about family but lives in near desitution due to giving all his money to his mother and his late brother's girlfriend to support his brother's child. He praises the bachelor life but is always on hand to shepherd numerous nieces and nephews at family gatherings, public celebrations, and on trips. He contends with beggars and prostitutes but is multilingual and an amateur poet. He often plays the clown but is fast and tough in a fight, and smart enough to see beyond what individuals with much greater power, wealth, and position may want him to see. He makes fun of everyone, including himself, but somehow always ends up taking the part of the underdog, even to his own detriment. Someone this smart and unusual deserves a worthy love interest; when she comes along, that woman is Falco's equal and then some.

So: the settings are compelling, the main and secondary characters fascinating, the mystery intriguing, the scholarship superb. Can the writing keep pace? It can indeed, moving along at a fast and entertaining clip.

' mother did something rapid to a vegetable.'

'...I like my women in a few wisps of drapery: then I can hope for a chance to remove the wisps. It they start out with nothing I tend to get depressed because either they have just stripped off for someone else or else, in my line of work, they are usually dead.'

"...she hurtled up the steps of the Temple of Saturn straight towards me. 'Excuse me -' she gasped. 'Excuse ME!' She dodged, I dodged. She was a slight thing; I prefered them tall, but I was prepared to compromise. While we sashayed on the steps, she glanced back, panic-struck. I admired her shapely shoulder, then squinted over it myself. Two ugly lumps of jail-fodder, jellybrained and broad as they were high, were pushing through the crowds towards her. 'Get out of my way!' she pleaded. I wondered what to do. 'Manners!' I chided thoughtfully. 'Get out of my way SIR!' she roared. She was perfect!'

What Doesn't
Apprentice Writer can't think of anything.

Since its inception, the Falco series has grown into numerous volumes, giving the intrepid sleuth and his faithful life- and detection-companion many cases to solve all over the farflung Roman empire. They investigate with the occasional aid and more frequent obstruction of their families and friends. The many, many fans of this series look forward to catching up with developments in the lives of popular recurring secondary characters as much as puzzling out each new case. Some go so far as to recreate the dishes mentioned in the stories with painstaking attention to historical detail, and try to outdo one another in asking obscure questions of the author at her extensive website. To date, this immensly fun series shows no signs of growing stale.

But does it make you laugh? ABSOLUTELY
The humor is drawn in equal parts from Falco's skewed way of looking at life and his habit of verbal thrust and parry with almost everyone he meets, as well as from the way the author portrays ancient Roman customs (the goat that Falco drags across half the empire because he can't bear to ritually slaughter it, the headache he has caring for the Eternal City's sacred geese, the ticklish business of figuring out how to interact with Vestal Virgins, the indignities he suffers travelling as a seasick non-swimmer, the impetuous use to which he puts a Minotauran frieze....etc. etc.) The Roman Empire of these books is no dusty, dull place of boring senatorial discourse or theoretical military strategy. It is vibrantly, gloriously alive. This first volume kicking the whole thing off has no trouble clinching a spot on Apprentice Writer's Keeper shelf.


Amy Ruttan said...

Wow! Sounds very unique and intriguing. :)

Wylie Kinson said...

Sounds like a great read. Where ever did you hear about it?

Julia Phillips Smith said...

My sister read a few of these books and absolutely loved them. Thanks for reminding me about Falco - I know he's someone I'll enjoy spending time with.

M. said...

amy - unique indeed. i've learned much more about that time period from the falco books than i ever did in school!

wylie - what can i say - i'll read a book in pretty much any kind of genre if it sounds like it's well-written and funny

julia - any recommendations of your own? or from your sister?

Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds like a fascinating and excellent read! Thanks for the recommendation.

Julia Phillips Smith said...

Sorry, M - I keep forgetting to recommend anything. Personally my favorite authors are Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, who does a series about a vampire named the Count Saint Germaine, and Jo Beverley, whose historical romances are generally both darker and more dialogue-heavy than many people like. Except me - I love them!

Yarbro's books are mainstream historical/paranormal and can be grim. As in head-lopping-off grim. But I like that in an 'eww' kind of way. And there is a romance in each book, but not in a romance-novel way. I adore her books! And the Count.

Jo Beverley often addresses the historical inequities of life, which I love. She featured a heroine with a club foot in one of my favorite books, 'Hazard', which also features a gamma hero, which I also love. If you want a delicous dark alpha, she can do that, too - 'Devilish', featuring Bey Malloren, Marquess of Rothgar.